Campfire Tales: a chat with John Fullbright
Watching John Fullbright on stage might not give you the impression of someone that’s actually kind of shy off stage. The 26 year old Oklahoman may look at ease under the lights but that’s not always the case (“There’s these crippling moments where you think 'I can’t do this!'”), so sat in a storage room without his guitar for comfort he’s thoughtful with his words, yet passionate about his song writing.
Following up the Grammy nominated, instant Americana classic From The Ground Up by releasing an album called simply Songs should tell you all you need to know about Fullbright and where his head’s at currently. And the conversation follows this thought process through, focussing on his growth as a songwriter (“On the last record I didn’t have the ability to edit myself”) and his feelings on the reception of audiences to something a little different (“There’s no backlash from true fans that appreciate what you do”).
Throughout the conversation Fullbright keeps you involved; he’s interesting, open about his craft and how he’s always learning. “The first record I didn’t have the ability to edit myself, there are things lyrically about that record where I go 'What the fuck am I talking about?' It’s just because I didn’t know how, I didn’t have the skills to go back and say 'this can be a little bit clearer' and for this one I had the ability to edit myself, and it never felt better.” It sounds obvious but learning these skills is a simple thing. “[You learn] from listening to other people’s stuff and writing your own stuff”.
During the conversation there’s a definite undercurrent of self-doubt. “More times than not the idea of writing a four minute song, with three verses and a chorus, that’s crippling sometimes because you don’t think you have enough to say. You start then you think 'I don’t have enough to fill four minutes'. It seems like an endless piece of paper that you have to fill up, and then about halfway through you realise 'Hey, I’m already two minutes into this thing and I have still a lot to say!'”
And he had a lot to say on Songs, but there wasn't really a grand plan behind it. “For the first record I had a handful of songs. We played them, we recorded them and we put 'em all together and said 'What does this sound like? What is it?'” And some songs don’t make the cut because of that, they didn’t share a common thread. And this was definitely that, ‘cause this was either going to be a very big, very produced record, or a very sparse, very subtle record and there were some big produced songs that didn’t make the cut because they didn’t have anything to do with this record. Maybe the next one.” One of those songwriters that never throws anything away, Fullbright keeps hold of songs and uses them when they make sense. "The ‘High Road’ and ’All That You Know', both of those songs I wrote when I was a teenager and I kept them in my little song bag this whole time. I don’t throw anything away. Frankly, I’m dry right now. That was every song I’ve ever written! I gotta go write more songs. But you know, there’s no clear intention. f there’s a common thread you find out about it later. You just write everything you can write at the time, and don’t stifle yourself else you’re just doomed in the end."
That means there’s always a chance we won’t see Fullbright for a few years if inspiration doesn’t hit. “One of my main mantras in life is not to panic about when I’m not able to write. You’re either in input mode or output mode. And if you try to write and nothing’s coming out it’s because you’re in the wrong mode. You have to go out and find things in the world to absorb and to make your own. I’m not really concerned about the next one as I’m kinda in input mode at the moment. I’ve got tentative plans to maybe make a covers record. I like playing other peoples songs more than I like playing my own.”
Songs is a totally self-written collection though, and Fullbright used his new self-editing skills right up until the vocals were laid down. “We didn’t sort it out until it was almost done, that was the thing. We cater to the song not the record. Once you have those songs in place, then you figure out what the record is. Not to say that’s the way I’ll do it for the rest of my life but that’s the way I’ve been doing it lately. Then there were songs that were literally being written as we were walking in to do vocals that day. And that’s cool too, it’s kinda empowering in a way, to be able to write and finish and rewrite something, even up until the point that you actually do it. It’s very kinda ... freeing.”
What isn’t so freeing is the thought of trying to follow a hugely successful debut, in some ways that must weigh heavy on the follow up. “There was pressure. As soon as I felt that it was interrupting me I put it out of my head. That pressure doesn’t exist in anyone else’s head but mine, and once I realised that then the quicker I realised it doesn’t exist in the first place.” Although that pressure doesn’t exist externally, it’s created by those external factors. Speaking with Fullbright for any length of time makes you understand that he’s a thinker, and that sometimes overthinking leads to his self-doubt. “[The pressure] has to do with how people internalise music. It’s what we all do - we take a song, that is about someone else, that someone else has written, and you make it our own song. And a good songwriter will be very good at letting you experience that. A bad songwriter will write you a rhyming version of their diary and then no-one cares. But the flipside of that coin is when you’ve got a lot of people that have now internalised your song and made it their own they kinda feel like they know you or they own you.”
Which leads on to how people deal with change in their favourite artists. “It’s a strange feeling when someone is a fan. In a way they’re expecting you to continue to tell their story, ‘cause that’s what they like about you, you’re telling their story. But it’s not their story, it’s the writers story. So whenever the writer that comes up with something that disagrees with the fan that’s very involved, they get hostile, I’ve seen it happen with other people, it happened with Bob Dylan. And that scares me because people can turn on you so quickly, and that’s too much for a 26 year old dude to be scared of. But I’m just very aware of that aspect of it and it’s just something I think about, and that’s a lot of the pressure.” That is a lot of pressure, and although he’s aware that “there’s no backlash from true fans that appreciate what you do”, there are always those that feel the way he described. “It’s those people that kinda make it a selfish act. They’re the ones that you gotta be wary of.”
Happily it all turned out well and Songs is getting strong reviews. “In retrospect I like how it’s worked out. That first record was so loud, it was a primal scream almost, and it got people’s attention. Then it’s like now that I have your attention here’s something that I really want and need to say, and I don’t have to yell at you anymore.” And despite the high regard that the industry and public have for From The Ground Up, the writer himself seems far prouder of Songs. “I’m very happy with how my personality is reflected in these songs. I think that this record is so much more of a better representation of who I am as a person and an artist. That’s endlessly thrilling.”
An interesting thought is whether the success would have been there had the release of the albums been reversed, the quiet, contemplative one first, followed by the loud, raucous one. “Honestly? I don’t know. I’ve no idea what people are gonna like. I don’t really do it for that. I am very glad when people like it, that’s very very fulfilling but I don’t write songs for other people’s enjoyment.” If that sounds blunt there’s more of the clarity that Fullbright is keen to give. “At least, they don’t start out that way. The quality wouldn’t be there. It’s gotta start with a personal experience, a story, an idea, then you start to figure out 'How would I say this in a way that will connect with someone else?' But it has to start inside yourself for sure.”
Life on the road is somewhat of a necessary evil but enjoyment comes from gauging early reactions and to get a view on whether songs work or not. “[The reception] has been great. We had no expectation on the last one and it did really well. I was afraid this record was too slow, too quiet, and that I was asking too much of the listener. It doesn’t come to you, it’s not like catchy dance music, you can’t just sit back and enjoy it, you have to actually sit with both ears and listen to it. There are records that I don’t listen to because it’s too much to ask; it’s too much to ask of me as a listener. There’s Leonard Cohen songs that I listen to about twice a year ‘cause they’re just too much. There are records that I hated the first time I heard ‘em. There’s a Jesse Winchester record called Wet The Rough Side. I spun it on my vinyl player and went 'Oh god, it’s terrible!' and now it’s one of my favourite records of all time! I can listen to it night and day. And I was afraid that I was alienating people but nobody has said that yet, people have really grabbed it and picked the things out of it that I was hoping people would. That’s the most thrilling part of it, when people respond the way you want them to or expect them to."
Fullbright has managed to deliver something much more contained and small whilst keeping the essence of his music alive and well. “You come in with expectations and when they’re not met you write it off. Part of the reason for calling the record just Songs was that I didn’t want there to be any expectation about what this record was. I didn’t want it to be The Imperial Twilight of the Whatever Dawn. It just had to be Songs, there’s no pretence, you’re coming in you’re gonna hear songs that John Fullbright wrote."
That, in a nutshell, sums up the essence of where John Fullbright is at this moment in time. He wants to be clear with you, subvert preset views of him and his music maybe, but never pretend to be anything else. Ultimately he still manages to deliver music that’s affecting and effective.
Songs will be released by Blue Dirt Records on 21st July.